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The meaning and origin of the expression: Have your work cut out

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Have your work cut out

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Have your work cut out'?

To have your work cut out is to be faced with a lengthy or difficult task.

The expression is often used in the extended form 'have your work cut out for you'.

Although we often now use the phrase to mean 'be faced with a difficult task', the original meaning (see below) was 'be faced with a large amount of work'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Have your work cut out'?

On first hearing, this phrase might seem to be difficult to understand. The usual meaning of 'cut out' is 'remove'. So, why would having your work removed be difficult - it should be easy surely?

Have your work cut our for youThe explanation is that, when this phrase was coined, the work be referred to was the sewing together of fabric pieces which had been cut out for you by someone else.

In more recent years, the advent of power-cutters which can cut out hundreds of layers of fabric in one go, make 'having your work cut out' especially appropriate for sewing factory workers.

Having asserted that 'to have your work cut out for you' originated in the tailoring trade, I ought to give a word of caution.

While that explanation seems plausible and it is difficult to imagine a different derivation, there is no unambiguous evidence in print to prove it beyond doubt.

The earliest use of the phrase in print that I know of is a piece, printed in London in 1591, entitled A discovery of the great subtiltie and wonderful wisedome of the Italians:

...here is more worke cut out in this one Chapter, then [than] they and their disciples will euer be able to do...

The reference there to 'work cut out' makes no mention of tailoring. That's the case in many of the early printed uses of the phrase. 'Work cut out' for someone just seems to have been synonymous with 'work provided' for them.

Another book, printed in London in the following year The Spaniards Monarchie, John Harison, 1592 , uses 'worke cut out' in the same way:

..was it easie or possible to your ancient Gauls... to deliver them selves from the subjection of the Romans, until after many ages... said Romanes had worke cut out for them in other provinces of their Empire?

It isn't usually a good plan to give an explanation as to the origin of a phrase based on plausibility. We only need to look at the whole nine yards to find numerous plausible, but wrong, derivations.

Nevertheless, given that it makes sense and there are no other candidates, tailoring is most likely to be the origin of 'have your work cut out for you'.